Examining the connections between architecture and jewellery: Looking into the last 100 years to inform a vision of jewellery practice in the future

Many jewellers cite architecture as an inspiration for their works. Still more exhibit in their visual vocabulary forms recognisable from architecture. In most instances the influence is subtle. It may be pure coincidence due to the use of similar motifs, though in some works the artist will deliberately reference specific buildings. The relationship between works is a dialogue between parties with mutual interests and intertwined aesthetic sensibilities. Architecture has a critical influence on the perception of constructed form for many people, as it is so familiar and so recognisable. Jewellery artists especially find both the products and the mechanics of structure aesthetically engaging, even intriguing, and often instructive on a technical level.

Viewing jewellery alongside architecture helps to reframe our viewpoint of jewellery practice, encouraging us to perceive our art form as a type of building practice; one concerned with the building of ornament. Yet even without altering our perspective one can see obvious similarities that occur between architecture and jewellery as built objects.

A shared outlook and understanding leads me to believe that there are insights to be gained by pursuing the convergences between architecture and jewellery. Viewing what we as jewellers do through any prism can help us whittle down what we most value in practice, as we see ourselves at one remove, and view our own field alongside the greater world of all creative output. Viewing jewellery and architecture in tandem is particularly instructive, as it gives us the opportunity to use the contemporary practice of architecture to instruct and inform the contemporary artist-jeweller. It is my intention that a study of the links in practice over the last one hundred years will show, through extrapolation (and with a bias towards technical innovation), how jewellery as a practice might continue to advance.

This investigation will cover the shared materials, techniques and aesthetics of these two practices to give more evidence to their established connections. It will then discuss some of the architects and jewellers who have found opportunities to shift between the two roles. Finally, the investigation will proffer some insights into the future of jewellery practice.


Working with the idea that architects and jewellers are operating within the same artistic spectrum of building objects, they each have at their disposal a series of processes and materials with which to create works. The structural nature of the architect’s practice dictates certain materials and methodologies are best employed in each of the design and construction stages of producing architecture. A similar way of working is employed by many jewellery artists too.

In the last one hundred years or so, jewellery and architecture have almost simultaneously investigated and adopted many new materials, and alongside these, new methods of manufacture. During this time jewellers have also taken on one far from modern building material, concrete, a material that was until this time strictly the preserve of building. However, the focus today is on the concurrent material adoptions.

Firstly, new metals and alloys were introduced in the twentieth century. Jewellers today commonly use titanium, owing to its properties of lightness, strength and corrosion resistance, and its ability to be anodised. Architecturally, titanium has been put to use as exterior cladding on walls and roofing, and in recent times it is most well known as the cladding of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by architect Frank Gehry. As far as processing this material goes, the hardness of titanium has been a motivator for the adoption of laser cutting and Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) milling techniques in the architecture and jewellery fields.

Another metal, an alloy of nickel, copper and some iron, Monel, has been similarly exploited. Patented in 1906, this alloy is another known for its extreme hardness and corrosion resistance, and unlike titanium, it can be brazed and soldered. It has found uses in jewellery – US Military dog tags early in the twentieth century[i] and locally and more recently in the works of such artists as Carlier Makigawa and Simon Cottrell. Architectural applications have similarly exploited these traits for use in roof cladding and architectural door hardware – push plates, door handles, latch sets and the like.

Many plastics first created in the 1800’s were commercialised during the twentieth century, and while it is infeasible to provide an exhaustive list of those that are used across both fields, the two that will spark immediate recognition in jewellers and architects alike are acrylics and polycarbonates. These, along with several proprietary polymers – Corian by Dupont and an earlier melamine with similar applications, ColorCore from Formica – have found favour with both professions. In architectural practice this has been predominantly as indoor surface treatments and for non-load bearing duties such as internal and external signage. Corian, owing to structural qualities unusual in these products, has been more successfully adapted architecturally to a wider range of applications. As jewellery demands less, structurally, of its materials, all of these products have been exploited primarily for their unique aesthetic appeal.



Already touched upon, several similar techniques are used by architects and jewellers in design and manufacture. Admittedly architects don’t build architecture, as a rule they draw it. From preliminary sketches to design drawings the architect’s investigative tool is drawing. For all architecture then, and many cases for jewels also, accurate working drawings must be in order before any form of construction commences.

Architectural documentation in the last 15 years has seen hand drawing shift from being ubiquitous to becoming almost redundant. In initial design stages, the hand can still be seen to move a pen, so the traditional ‘drawing on napkins’ approach will take time to fade completely from the architect’s toolkit. Increasingly however, the first germs of an idea are being articulated in model-space, with clients coming to expect digitally re-touched renderings and three-dimensional visualisations early on in the design process. Now of course, working and construction drawings are routinely completed in CAD.

The same goes for many manufacturing jewellers, as they too have kept pace with the introduction of computers into the design realm. One of the earliest adopters was UK artist David Watkins, who in 1974 first used a computer, programmed by a friend, to control a random number generator to dictate the sequence of a series of forms he had designed. This was not constructing the drawing via machine, but allowing the computer to choose, with the aid of the program to direct it to use only achievable combinations from the pieces given, the final design from a collection of parts already committed to paper.[ii] This ‘design programming’ was undertaken eight years before the introduction of the first version of AutoCad in 1982,[iii] the significance being that AutoCad was one of the first computer programs to visualise and manipulate graphic input. It was also one of the first that had been specifically programmed to operate on personal computers, rather than large mainframe machines.

Once AutoCad emerged, Watkins was again an early adopter. In 1985 he was using laser cutting (at this early stage co-opting into his service a machine whose primary purpose was to cut armour plating for military vehicles[iv]) on ColorCore – a composite material which could be seen as a precursor to products such as Corian (mentioned before, one of several proprietary resin and stone aggregates, others include CaesarStone and Silestone) – to his specifications as programmed by a technician. By 1988 he was making the drawings himself, having taken up Cad as “his principal drawing tool”[v].


Manufacturing tools in building and jewellery differ more due to scale, though there are echoes of jewellery production in many aspects of building, and vice versa. Mechanisation of manufacturing processes is increasing in both fields. With an increased reliance on Computer Aided Design (CAD) in the drawing or drafting stages, CAM technologies are becoming a more common part of manufacturing.

The evolution of CAD-CAM technology has meant that manufacturing by computer control is easy, once the design is finalised. Designing and drawing on computer is still growing in popularity amongst jewellers. For many, the added expense of both the jeweller’s time and the price outsourcing the manufacturing made the costs of investigation prohibitive. I would argue that the tipping point – where it becomes more economically beneficial to collaborate with CAM fabricators than to work without– is now being been reached, owing to the dexterity with which many a jeweller can produce all parts of a work without such assistance. Without economic incentive for jewellers to interact with CAD technology it was only utilised by the time-rich curious few. As the technology has improved, however (and the cost decreased), the advances and benefits have become clear to jewellers, and many are embracing these technologies.

By contrast, in the manufacturing and building industries, the benefits of machine routing and milling, laser cutting and water jet cutting being controlled by computer were apparent early on. For the detail-oriented architect, having your design cut to your plans without further interference meant that the drawings lost nothing in the interpretation. This alone made CAD-CAM popular, and increasingly less expensive than having to relate the drawings to a manufacturer for them to first: interpret and second: produce.

The more recent additions to CAD-CAM are additive processes like rapid prototyping, three-dimensional printing and laser sintering. These technologies depend on more complicated, and therefore more expensive, three-dimensional rendering software for their programming. Such programs were already in widespread use by the architect and industrial designer, once again promoting the early adoption of this new equipment by architects. Yet owing to a small output size with relatively high resolution, rapid prototyping and three-dimensional printing are perfect for making objects as well as the production of models for casting, so the software is becoming visible on the jeweller’s bench. In the commercial jewellery sector the fabrication machines are increasingly common, paired with CAD programs like Rhino, ArtCAM and JewelCAD where the benefits of high-volume repetitive production were clear at the outset.

This technology is being experimented with amongst the ranks of artist-jewellers, with Ted Noten being a prolific user of this technology. Laser sintering, a method of direct metal production that combines the resolution of other printing technologies with the benefit of one-step metal fabrication, is gaining more users and will continue to evolve.

Aesthetic commonalities

The reality of constructing objects out of matter has an effect on form in architecture and jewellery alike. As a rule, artefacts created by each profession must hold their own weight and stand up to external forces like gravity and tension. But the similarity of stresses alone does not explain the full gamut of aesthetic relationships to be found between the two professions. In jewellery there are instances of homage to specific works of architecture, and to geometric forms and devices found in architecture. Then there is the independent exploration, which result in structure-like objects whose relationship to architecture is coincidental. Explorations of similar geometry to architecture – those investigations of line, plane and volume in jewellery will often show a spatial/structural awareness more generally associated with architecture and architects. This crosses over with the final relationship, an artist who possesses an architectural sensibility, and thus who is naturally drawn to creating works that investigate spatial and volumetric forms.

There are many jewellery artisans whose aesthetic language echoes architectonic concerns, such as Giampaolo Babetto, Helfried Kodre and Peter Skubic. Interestingly, each of these artists also works in sculpture, giving them the opportunity to examine proportion and scale in both large and small works. Such competency in shifting scales I think only further attests to their deep interest in architectural allusions, and expression.

So jewellers examine architectonic concerns through their own medium. Do architects explore any of the aesthetic concerns of the jeweller? Do they make jewellery? And the reverse, can jewellers produce architecture?

Swapping Roles

There have been several notable occasions in which the architect and jeweller have swapped hats. In my research I have found it to be dominated by architects designing works of jewellery, to be manufactured by others. The array of works touches on those that are interesting, unusual and beautiful, such as the works by Arata Isozaki, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier and Robert Venturi showcased in the 1988 publication Jewelry by Architects.[vi] Yet in most of these works I see architects working with very architectural concerns in slightly modified materials, at an unusual scale. They seem like test pieces, maquettes, investigations into scale that if pursued further would yield yet more exciting results. But these are not the only examples.

To begin our search at the opening of the twentieth century, we find the Wiener Werkstatte, and within it architect Josef Hoffman. Hoffman is a trained and practising architect designing jewellery, often in consultation with his clients, and equally importantly, in consultation with the craftsmen who produce the finished works to his specifications.[vii] His architectural practice involved mostly domestic dwellings and interiors as well as a range of domestic items (such as cutlery and lamps)[viii]. His jeweled works show a feel for the scale of the medium, and an understandable love of geometric precision. Usually designed within a rigid frame, he creates tension in the work through the way the stones, mostly semi-precious and colourful, seem to gather randomly within their tight border.

Next there are the works contained in the collection Jewellery by Architects, as already mentioned. These were commissioned by Cleto Munari in the nineteen eighties. More recently there is the collaboration between Frank Gehry and Tiffany in the design of a collection of jewellery. The initial range, launched in 2005, involved Gehry and;

“Tiffany’s senior vice president in charge of merchandising, and a team of nine jewelry designers. They ask the architect to identify his favorite aspects of his buildings… They elongate and trim and squish and extend his roofs and buttresses on computer; he throws folded paper in the air to illustrate planes and elevations. They present him a sinuous bangle; he demands “a sharper edge and stronger definition.””[ix]

In this circumstance it is hard to argue which party was doing the lion’s share of the design, but as noted on the Gehry Partners LLP website “Every project undertaken by Gehry Partners is designed personally and directly by Frank Gehry.” In his practice he employs a staff of one hundred and sixty to aid in the interpretation of his ideas into architectural form.

For architects to design jewellery they need to grapple with an extreme reduction in scale, as illustrated in the collaboration between Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher for Swarovski. Their catwalk piece from 2008[x] shows that, for Hadid at least, this seems to be not so difficult. Hadid’s architectural works can vary greatly in size, from the expansive plans of the Regium Waterfront development in Italy to the cocoon-like space of the Burnham Pavillion in Chicago (which has a significantly smaller footprint of fourteen by twenty metres.) Her sinuous forms are seemingly universal throughout – to the point that the waterfront development looks to me like a bangle, and the Burnham Pavilion a brooch, in the vein of this work by Mitsue Slattery.

Mitsue Slattery Leaf Brooch, Fine Silver Image: Matthew Brown
Mitsue Slattery
Leaf Brooch, Fine Silver
Image: Matthew Brown

Figure 1: Leaf Brooch[xi] by Mitsue Slattery

All three architects discussed – Josef Hoffman, Gehry and Hadid – have designed works that others have then created. This follows the usual business plan of the architect – the architect creates a design, the drawing of which operates as a list of instructions to the manufacturer, and the manufacturer then makes the object.[xii] Despite some convergences in the practices, the fundamental differences between architect as overseer and jeweller as artisan still holds. While some architects do build, the complexity of modern building is such that they cannot possess all of the skills of all the practitioners involved in the creation of buildings. A jeweller on the other hand, even with the assistance provided in such outsourcing as casting, finishing, laser-cutting et cetera, is still obliged to do much assembly by hand.

For the jeweller to function as architect they therefore must produce instructions only. In doing so they change the relationship they have with their materials, and often the materials themselves, necessary not least because of the dramatic shift in the size of the work. The structural and legal knowledge held by the architect – taught as part of their training, and added to by experience – makes it considerably more difficult for the jeweller to down tools, pick up mouse or pen and effect works of architecture. This can begin to explain why, that despite obvious talent in the creation of spatial forms, any work realised by a jeweller making the temporary transition to architect is much less complex than the design of a complete building. Unless a similar arrangement to the one given to Mr Gehry is made available to the jeweller, it remains incredibly more difficult. But in saying that, it has been done.

Wendy Ramshaw began working at architectural scale for a commission of a gate at the St John’s College, Oxford in 1993.[xiii] The forger Ian Lamb executed the piece in mild steel and gold leaf. Other commissions followed, many in the same vein, such as screens, doors and a spiral staircase. Frequently her works are commissioned alongside new architecture, so like with Gehry’s jewellery project, there is a team on hand to assist with its execution.

Ramshaw’s method for these projects is similar to that of her jewellery works, in that she prepares drawings before any material is manipulated. Her drawings are still executed by hand, at the final stages translated into CAD to enable the use of water jet and laser cutting in their manufacture.[xiv] Interestingly these larger works share the same motifs and proportions of her jewelled ones, and in several she has incorporated glass in the form of an optical lens. The lenses, in shape and location, simulate the stones that are found in her smaller scale works. The real changes then are shift in materials, and scale, with one piece being fifteen meters in length, and others frequently reaching dimensions greater than the two-metre mark. Materially she still works primarily in metal, and as mentioned she uses glass in place of stones. Large or small, her works maintain a very similar palette, and therefore, feel.

Moving into Architectural Practice

As illustrated, we are at a point in which architects and jewellers are at a similar remove from production when communicating with manufacturers beyond the studio.  We see jewellers out-source some production, in the manner that architects outsource all production. The moment a jeweller out sources the drawing part of the production, however, they become a step further removed than the architect within their chain of manufacture. An architect in more direct control of the production of their works than the jeweller is something of an unusual event. As mentioned, where once the architect relied on the builder or other manufacturer to interpret their drawings to produce the work, they are now able to rely on CAM technologies to cut out the middleman, so to speak. Now, as suggested by Rick Pynor in his article, “Art’s Little Brother”;

“[T]he computer has transferred specialized tasks and crafts once carried out by others to the designer’s desktop and control, eliminating the need to prepare detailed instructions…”

He goes on to say that with these technologies, and with the raised level of control of production at the fingertips of the designer, the use of such technology will soon progress to become as “intuitive”[xv] as the tools currently in the hands of artisans.

As jewellers continue to join the ranks of architects who draw directly into the computer, they will naturally become more skilled at being able to exploit the creative opportunities afforded by computer design. Beyond freeing themselves of technicians and draftspersons who are often employed to interpret their hand-drawings into computer language, as Poyner suggests, the hand and eye will become accustomed, to the point of being able to work intuitively. It can be argued that for some of us this is already the case.

This connection to similar design tools will alter the jeweller’s reach, as the ability for jewellers to switch between the professions will have had one of the technical blocks removed. Given equal standing technically, it is possible that we will see more jewellers scaling up, and working within the realms of architectural design. All that remains to be seen is whether more jewellers are keen to find opportunities to try their hand at upsizing, in the manner of Wendy Ramshaw.

Architects as Jewellers?

The estate of Frank Lloyd Wright, who has permitted the translation into jewellery many design elements of the architect’s works, has set a precedent. There have been multiple translations made of details of his many houses into earrings, pendants, cufflinks and the like, with production licensed to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.[xvi]

As part of the growth of more multi-disciplinary architectural research practices, who with rapid prototyping software and hardware at their disposal presently have some similar design and manufacturing equipment to jewellers, there is the possibility that we will see the reverse of the jewellers upsizing scenario, with more architects working at smaller scales.

The blueprints are already in place (excuse the pun.) The scale of architecture necessitates that drawings be routinely produced at a reduced size. If that scale is subverted, for instance if one starts engaging with a 1:100 drawing as if it were at 1:1, it is merely a change in perception to translate a plan from a representation of architecture to a life-size design for jewellery. We may find, rather than waiting for the architecture to reach iconic status (as in the case of Wright’s works), architects will capitalise on the cross-promotional opportunities to bring the creation of such jewels in-house, resulting in more architect-designed jewels.

In Conclusion: Independence and/or Collaboration

In the world of architectural design there is an increased prevalence of multi-disciplinary design practices. Graphics are conceived alongside architecture, furniture, interiors and products are designed simultaneously. Jewellery created in this context, is just another vehicle for innovative design.

In practice, such design does not claim to be the work of jewellers, but there does exist the potential for some interesting works of jewellery to result. And if not jewellers, what then, when jewellers are creating with the same technologies, do architects inhabiting the same territory say they are?

At its heart this is a question that challenges very nature of our profession. Soon we may have cause to ask, “What is a jeweller?” When laser-sintering machines become as ubiquitous as the microwave, and copious downloadable files of potential jewellery creations are available on the Internet primed for immediate realisation, this question will take on far greater significance. Right now we have small rapid production machines like the Makerbot Industries CupCake[xvii] being shipped to do-it-yourself enthusiasts globally, which extrude works of jewellery scale. When jewellery can be created in every home, who is the jeweller?

A Future

There are positives to the future, the flip side to these complicated questions that await the profession. There are benefits to be gained for jewellers as professionals. Several avenues by which jewellers are offered other design opportunities already exist. With added computer knowledge and training, jewellers will become even more desirable as consultants, enabling design houses to exploit their specialist skills and knowledge.

In the immediate future, with architecture currently leading jewellery in the widespread use of CAD and CAM, jewellers will continue to train at these new technologies, moving towards the coalface of this production. With the so far prohibitive costs associated with laser and rapid production dropping, computer-assisted production is coming into the jeweller’s studio, giving the jeweller more freedom to experiment, an ever-important partner to innovation.

Finally, since three-dimensional and additive printing is already available, we await new machines that can work with several materials simultaneously. More specifically, look out for more technologies that work using permanent materials, rendering the two-step process of printing then casting unnecessary. It is this laser-sintering technology that will prove to be another inspirational addition to the jeweller’s toolkit. With such advances taking place as were unthinkable even twenty years ago, I see the future for jewellers as a continued evolution, using our specialist skills and knowledge of materials to help us adapt to the benefits that technology can bring to our practice.

The image list to accompany this presentation can be found here.

[i] “Monel – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monel.
[ii] Beatriz Chadour-Sampson, David Watkins: Artist in Jewellery (Arnoldsche, 2008), 29.
[iii] Shaan Hurley, “Autodesk,” 2005, http://myfeedback.autodesk.com/history/version_1460_40release_141_history.htm.
[iv] Chadour-Sampson, David Watkins, 107.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Barbara Radice, Jewelry By Architects (Rizzoli, 1988).
[vii] Janis Staggs et al., Wiener Werkstatte Jewelry, First Edition. (Hatje Cantz, 2008).
[viii] Wolfgang Karolinsky, “WOKA LAMPS VIENNA : Josef Hoffman,” http://woka.com/en/info/designer/josef-hoffmann.asp?
[ix] Sally Singer, “Incredible Shrinking Genius,” US Vogue, April 2006.
[x] Shonquis Moreno, “I.D. – Zaha Hadid Builds Jewelry,” ID The International Design Magazine, August 4, 2008, http://www.id-mag.com/article/celeste/.
[xi] Matt Brown, “Moose: Art for Living – Leaf brooch by Mitsue Slattery,” http://www.shopmoose.com.au/pieces/leaf-brooch.
[xii] Wigley, Mark. Whatever Happaned to Total Design? 1998, in Alex Coles, Design and Art (The MIT Press, 2007), 167.
[xiii] Wendy Ramshaw, “Wendy Ramshaw,” Ramshaw-Watkins, http://www.ramshaw-watkins.com/wr/project.htm.
[xiv] Wendy Ramshaw, “Agreement (Email to Author),” April 2, 2010.
[xv] Coles, Design and Art, 95.
[xvi] “MoMA Store – Frank Lloyd Wright,” http://momastore.org/museum/moma/CategoryDisplay_10451_10001_11476_11581_-1__.
[xvii] MakerBot Industries, “CupCake CNC Basic Kit – CupCake CNC – MakerBot Industries,” 2010, http://store.makerbot.com/cupcake-cnc/cupcake-cnc-basic.html.